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Mick Ralphs

The Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy Countinues
 
The Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy Countinues

The legendary Bad Company was born in 1973, when Mick Ralphs left Mott The Hoople and teamed up with ex-Free vocalist Paul Rodgers. Soon after, Free drummer Simon Kirke and King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell came aboard to complete the lineup. The group’s name was inspired by the ’72 film of the same name, directed by Robert Benton.

Bad Company released its self-titled debut on Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label in ’74. It included the colossal hit, “Can’t Get Enough,” and established the R&B-based rock sound that made Bad Company one of the most popular bands of the ’70s and ’80s.

The original lineup recently reunited to assemble tracks for The Original Bad Co. Anthology (Elektra), a compilation and history of the group’s music. This new two-CD set includes previously unreleased material, rare alternate takes of several hits, and four new cuts; “Tracking Down A Runaway,” and “Hammer Of Love,” written by Rodgers, and Ralphs’ “Ain’t It Good” and “Hey Hey.”

The sessions for these new tracks marked the first time the original members had played together since 1981. And in honor of its latest release, the reunited Bad Company toured this summer. Ralphs spoke with VG about the making of Anthology and his hopes for the future of Bad Company.

Vintage Guitar: What inspired the Anthology album and reunion?

Mick Ralphs: The idea initially came up to do the anthology because we already have a compilation (10 From 6), and rather than put out another sort of best-of collection, we thought it would be a good idea to release a history of the band without having it be anything beyond that. The record company thought it was a great idea and asked if we had any material that hadn’t been released. I found reams of lists of songs that had silly titles like “Blues Jam, Part 1.” Going through them would have involved hours and hours of listening to tapes that may or may not even be usable. Paul or I suggested it would be easier to just record new songs and bring the whole thing up-to-date. That would give us the chance to play together and give the record company something they hadn’t heard.

Where did the older unreleased material come from?

There are some unreleased things from the past. Some is different mixes that were released. There’s a song called “Smoking 45,” which was never released. We recorded that one around the time of the Burning Sky album. There’s a track called “Whiskey Bottle” which was a B-side, but it was a different mix. “Superstar Woman” was never released.

How was the new material selected?

Paul sent me some of his stuff and I sent him some of my stuff, then we ended up picking four songs.

How long was it from the time the idea came up to record new material to when the band actually got together?

There was a lot of back and forth with the record company and it took a while to come up with a compilation that was going to please everyone. It was about nine months before we got to the point of doing the new songs. We hadn’t actually played together for 20 years or so, but the new songs were recorded pretty quickly. I kind of like the rough edge they have.

What were your feelings when the band began playing together after so long?

We were laughing and joking because we were a bit nervous. But once we started, we knew it was going to be okay. Paul came in and put a guitar on, and then once we started playing, this big grin came over his face and that sort of broke down any tension. It was just that so much time had passed and caused everyone to be more cautious.

What was the first song you played when the band finally reunited?

We played “Tracking Down A Runaway.” Paul plugged the guitar in and just started playing the riff, and we all joined in.

Was there too much pressure to do an old song at that point?

Maybe just a bit, because we were nervous. Then one day Paul suddenly said, “Let’s do ‘Can’t Get Enough,'” which I usually play on an open-tuned guitar, but I didn’t have one there. We did it anyway, and it sounded really rocking. That really psyched everybody up.

How were the new songs developed?

I have been writing for the last few years, since I got off the road. I write a lot of different songs, like jazz or pop songs, but not for any specific purpose other than just to keep writing.

Did you write the new songs with Bad Company in mind?

No, I wrote them as rock songs, for anyone, really.

When you’re writing, do you still prefer open tunings, as you did in the ’70s?

Yes. “Hey Hey” was an open tuning. It’s basically a G tuning – G, G, D, G, B, D. I’ve used that for a long time. I liked the idea of having open G because it gives you different sounds and for rock ‘n’ roll songs it restricts you from going too posh. When we did “Can’t Get Enough” and “Movin’ On,” Paul liked the songs, but he wanted me to change the key. So we ended up doing them in the key of C. I used a Strat or a Tele and I had to put really light strings on it and tune it up to the key of C – C, C, G, C, E, C. That’s quite high, but it gives a very unique sound. It never really sounds right in standard tuning. It needs the open C to have that ring, but it makes the tension on the strings feel really tight. I play the solo in the end in the open tuning, but Paul’s guitar is tuned in standard tuning. It’s really hard for me to bend when I get to the end of that solo, but I’ve gotten used to it. I just have to remember not to hit the guitar too hard or I might break the strings if I’m not careful.

Who influenced you to play open tunings?

I think I’ve always wanted to write songs like Chuck Berry, things that just chug along. I think Keith Richards has always tried to do the same. Like me, he was always trying to write a Chuck Berry song. To me, he wrote the definitive rock ‘n’ roll lyrics – about cars, girls and jukeboxes, all the stuff that we tried to put in songs. Although his songs were all basic blues songs, he was playing country rock with a blues background. It had a great groove to it. It’s hard to do, really. A lot of rock bands try to do it, but they sound square. If you listen to the old Chuck Berry records, he’s playing in 4/4, but the other guys are playing a shuffle. The two rhythms together make a great sort of groove. I think that was the secret of those records. I like to try things like that.

When you went to record the new material, did you approach things in the same way as the old days?

Yes. Paul or I would come up with the songs and then we’d send tapes to Boz and Simon…which they’d never listen to! Then when we would go into the studio, they’d ask how the songs go and what happens after each part. When we record, I just play real simple rhythm guitar with Simon to get the groove going, and Boz lays down a bass part on top. I never really have any fixed ideas on the guitar parts. I just want to get it rolling and take the song where it should go. I’ll play whatever is going to work, whether it’s chugging chords or little riffs, and we just work together and see what fits best.

When you’re working with other guys, it’s generally best to see what they want to do with your song. I just write things as a pencil sketch and chuck it at them. You can always embellish it – home demos are home demos. You need the other people to part a spark in it.

Did you record any other new tracks, besides these four songs?

No, we didn’t have enough time, really. It would be nice to do more. I’ve got lots of songs I’d like to try, and I’m sure Paul has some, too. It would be nice to think there will be more than this, but for the moment we’re just taking it one step at a time. We don’t want to feel we’re tied to each other because that would produce a counterproductive vibe.

Were the basic tracks recorded live in the studio?

Yes, we just hacked them out. As long as I’ve known Simon, he’ll play a song three times and then he’s done. He plays it like it’s his last gig on Earth. I always say that I’ll redo the rhythm tracks and I never do.

How many guitar tracks do you record?

I usually record one basic track and one with a lead bit or slide bit. Paul played guitar on a couple of tracks, too. He played on “Tracking Down A Runaway” and “Hammer Of Love.”

What kind of guitars, amps, and effects did you use on the new tracks?

For my rhythm tracks on all of the songs, I used either a Japanese ’50s reissue Strat or a blond Custom Shop ’54 reissue Strat. I used the Custom Shop Strat for all the slide parts. Both have maple necks and fingerboards. I played through a 100-watt Marshall 900 series head, the High Gain Dual Reverb with an old straight 4 X 12 bottom cabinet. I don’t like the way the slanted ones sound. The cabinet was one of the old ones Marshall made for Bad Company in the ’70s. My cabinets were also modded – the backs were sealed, so the speakers load from the front.

In the ’70s I played through two 100-watt heads and two 4 X 12 cabinets. After Bad Company stopped working together, I realized how loud they actually were. If you play in a club, it’s like you could just shred everybody’s hair and nobody else could be heard. Then I got some of the new Marshall heads because I needed the master volume control to keep the volume down. I had gotten rid of most of my old Marshalls over the years. For a long time, they were in storage and when I got them out, they weren’t in the best condition. Most of them needed servicing and it seemed much easier to just get new ones, but I don’t think the new ones sound as good.

I don’t usually record with any effects, so any of the effects on the new tracks were added to fatten up the mix. We recorded in England and roughly mixed them, then Paul redid some vocals and remixed everything in Canada, so I’m not exactly sure what he did to them in the final mixes. In the past, on the road I had a T.C. Electronics rackmount unit that would give me either a bit of chorus or a bit of echo. All of the other gadgets back then were too noisy, but the T.C. gave me a nice, creamy chorus without any “whooshing.” I don’t really like using effects. Certain songs will need it, but I like to have the sound guy control it.

Do you ever play Les Pauls anymore?

Lately I’ve been totally Fender Strat mad and I play nothing but Strats, although I could never get on with the Strat before. When I’m at home, one of my hobbies is taking guitars apart and rebuilding them. I’ve redone almost every guitar I’ve got. I have three or four reissue Strats I’ve redone and I think those sound and play about as good as many of the old ones. It’s about getting the right body. I can tell right away – I don’t even have to plug them in. I like them a little lighter in weight, but not too light. I think the lighter bodies sometimes have a smoother sound.

But since we’re back on the road, I’m starting to need that Gibson stuff again. I like them both. They’re totally different animals. The Strat makes you work hard. It’s harder to play and you have to fight with the damn thing to get it to sound good. The Gibsons are more luxurious-sounding and I used them for some of the old stuff. I think of the Gibson as driving a Cadillac, while the Fender is like driving a big pickup truck. You get there in the end, it’s just how you go about it.

What kind of sound do you try to get from the amp?

I like my sound to have plenty of bottom and a little bit of edge on top, but I don’t like middle and I don’t like it to sound shrill. I want my sound to be smooth and creamy.

When you record, do you stand in the same room as the amp?

Yes. I have the amp separated with a screen to cut down on the spillage, but we don’t really consider that a problem. I like to feel the amp moving the air and when you play in the control room, you can’t feel that. When I play a solo, I like to be close to the amp, where it’s all noisy and I can feel the bottom-end thundering away. I also stand pretty close to Simon because I like to see him and so I can feel the bass drum.

Do you wear ear plugs when you play live?

No. When I’m on a big stage, I find myself going back to the amp for a bit of that oomph. In a club, you’re right on top of it and it’s right there in the back of your head. But when you’re on a big stage, when you walk to the edge of the stage, you can hardly hear the sound coming out of your amp. You can have it coming through the monitors, but it always sound like a chainsaw, so I find myself gravitating back to the amp to get that sound I like. Onstage, I just get a sound that makes me feel good and play good, then I let the sound guy do his thing. If you get a good sound guy, he’ll give you some direction, too.

How are your Stratocasters set up?

I have the tremolos blocked off – I don’t use the wang bar at all. It’s too trendy. In fact, I don’t even screw in the bars.

What kind of strings and picks do you use?

Ernie Ball Regular Slinkys, .010-.036, and Herco gold picks. I like that rough grip they have. When I play, I turn them around and use the round side so I can get harmonics. I grip so there’s only a little bit of plastic showing, and use the rough edge to scrape the strings.

Do you still have a large guitar collection?

I had to sell many of my vintage guitars and old amps. I’ve always collected guitars, but over the years you get divorced or something and something has to go. But that’s okay, because then you can enjoy finding them again. I go to vintage guitars shows and I get obsessed by old catalogs and parts, although I’m amazed at the asking prices. But there’s always room for more guitars and you can never have enough great stuff! I just like looking at guitars and I can’t bear to have them kept in cases. I can’t stand people who keep them in cases and never clean them up. I have to have them out. Every one of my guitars is gleaming.

I’ve got an old Fender ’57 Esquire I used to play all the time, then I stopped playing it and I had it hanging around. When I started playing it again I realized it’s a really great guitar. I have a pink Japanese ’50s reissue Strat and Tele – they were a pair. I made the Tele into an Esquire and have repainted the Strat several times now. It’s been nearly every color, but it sounds great no matter what you do to it. It’s black and I’m thinking of taking it on the road. I’ve got a couple of other reissue Strats and some homemade Esquires, too, and an old ’59 Les Paul Standard, which is a great player, although it doesn’t look that great, and an ES-335 reissue. I’ve also got two cheap Epiphone solidbodies, one is like a Les Paul Junior and the other is an LP100, which is like a plain Les Paul Standard with a thin body and a bolt-on neck. It sounds great.

How do the newer reissues compare to the original vintage instruments?

Sometimes a new cheapie can be really cool and just sound right. It’s never going to be exactly like a vintage guitar because you can’t recreate the aging. But some of my reissue Teles and Strats can rock with the best of the old ones.

What kind of music do you listen to?

Jazz, classical, and blues most of the time. I don’t really listen to any current stuff. I usually have the radio tuned to a classical or jazz station. It’s therapeutic – music that makes me feel good. I find rock music very annoying. It makes me want to turn it down all the time. When I do put on an album, I’ll put on something like Mozart or Robben Ford.

Do you ever listen to your own records?

I like to leave it alone once I’ve done it, although I did listen to the stuff we did recently quite a bit, but I can’t play it anymore. My girlfriend plays it all the time, so I hear it around the house, but it would be really cool to hear it on the radio.

Any chance the band will record a new Bad Company album in the future?

That would be great. If everybody enjoys this, we’ll talk about it. Everybody kind of wants to leave it so there’s no pressure. We’re taking things casually, and if it all pans out, there’ll be more. It would be cool.



Photos courtesy of Elektra.

This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Nov ’99 issue.

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